British citizenship is one of our most prized possessions. Not only are we part of a civilised and democratic society, subject to the rule of law, but we have access to top-quality healthcare and education. We should not be surprised that so many people, rich and poor, would love to settle here. We are the envy of the world in many ways.
This might sound uncomfortably patriotic. But there's a reason for that. I am only too aware that I could have been born elsewhere, and not enjoyed the ample benefits and opportunities of British citizenship. My mother was pregnant with me as she returned to Britain after separating from my Ghanaian father. I am sure we can all recognise the intense value of British citizenship. Whether you are a first, third, or 300th-generation immigrant to these islands, go back far enough and we are all in the same boat.
I went on to grow up in social housing in South London, an especially tough upbringing for a child of mixed heritage in 1960s Britain. But perhaps it is because of this background that I understand how people really feel about immigration. It is the pace of change that causes people to feel unsettled, and even more so in these difficult economic times. It is the sense that our neighbourhoods are changing at too rapid a rate; that we cannot understand the languages or cultures around us.
Immigration is not new: Many people cite the arrival of 493 West Africans on the Empire Windrush as the start of mass immigration. But this number is dwarfed by the 3.5 million people that arrived in Britain during the course of the last Labour government. While the Conservative-led government has cut net migration by over a third, people are still worried. We feel powerless in the face of inflexible EU legislation, and concerned about lifting labour movement restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens – especially since unemployment benefit is 2.7 times Bulgaria's minimum wage.
And we are not the only ones. Germany has expressed similar reservations about the border-free travel zone. In March, Hans-Peter Friedrich, the Interior Minister, told Spiegel newspaper: “The right to freedom of movement means that every citizen of the EU can remain in any member state when he or she studies or works there. Any EU citizen who fulfils that condition is welcome here. But those who only come to receive social welfare, and thus abuse the freedom of movement – they must be effectively prevented from doing so.”
Much of our attitude, and that of many other EU nations, stems from a feeling that people are unjustly securing our prized citizenship without making a fair contribution. When someone joins a company they receive a salary – that is it, they do not automatically get a share in the company. And when someone rents a room from you, they do not automatically get to stay or own part of your home. We would never expect to become citizens elsewhere without possessing some historic connection or meeting some strict criteria, and rightly so. We must tackle this injustice, and be seen to do so, if people are to engage with politicians seriously again.
Different types of immigration
The current immigration debate is marred with negative connotations because distinct groups of immigrants are incorrectly lumped together and tarred with the same brush: Illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, those working here legally on work visas, tourists and students. We must treat each as a distinct group.
§ First, illegal immigrants must be deported. Full stop.
§ Second, asylum seekers: We must help genuinely persecuted people, but, where possible, we should discourage in-country applications and continuous in-country appeals. It should be possible to allow asylum seekers to apply at British embassies in safe countries nearest where they are fleeing. All too often we see people travel vast distances—across continents and other safe countries—to end up in the UK, and become entangled in long appeal processes that are eventually unsuccessful. Additionally, with proper restrictions in place, asylum seekers should be allowed to work and pay their way while living in the country.
§ Third, proper policies must be implemented that allow people working here on work visas to contribute to the wealth of the UK and avoid placing a burden on public services.
§ Finally, tourists and students must be welcomed with open arms. I want to see as many tourists visiting Britain as possible because every penny they spend helps our economy and every visit they make creates goodwill around the world. I also want to see international students paying fees and studying here, before returning home or applying for work visas. There is still hard work to be done, but Theresa May and Damian Green have done a laudable job clamping down on bogus colleges.
Citizenship must be carefully rationed
But what confounds rational debate and makes people foam with anger is immigrants' almost automatic right to apply for British citizenship – sometimes by virtue of having lived here for as little as three years. To add some perspective: in Switzerland, residents must have lived in the country for at least 12 years, and the local community get a binding vote on all citizenship applications.
We must sever any form of automatic link between working in the UK and attaining citizenship. We must also increase the length of time it takes before a right of settlement can be considered. Nobody expects to qualify to become a Swiss national because, and only because, they have lived there for while – there is a lot more to it than that.
These two concepts need to be separated. On the one hand, we must build a vibrant economy through welcoming workers, tourists and students provided they pay their way. On the other, we must protect and ration the prize of British citizenship.
No doubt, this will take political will and grit, but we are still a sovereign nation. We need to renegotiate the terms of our EU membership – or withdraw. We must make it clear that we reject the concept of some pan-European citizenship which threatens to steam roll the culturally-rich identities of Britain and our European colleagues. And, of course, we must choose our words carefully to avoid the dog-whistle accusations of racism.
It is to our credit that hundreds of thousands of people want to become British citizens. It is a mark of our international standing as a tolerant, welcoming, vibrant and exciting nation that offers opportunities to all regardless of heritage or nationality. But we must stop flattering ourselves and start acting more business-like. We cannot keep welcoming everyone at the expense of our own citizens. Now is the time to take control so that we have a country at ease with itself – so we have an integrated, fully functional society with a bright future.